Pyrrhus was a powerful king who ruled Epirus and Macedon for some years during the Hellenistic period. Plutarch tells a revealing story about him in his Parallel Lives (Life of Epirus, 14).
One of Pyrrhus’s valued advisors was a man named Cineas, who was entrusted on many foreign missions of great sensitivity. He had, through the agility and wisdom of his diplomacy, won over many peoples to the cause of Pyrrhus. Gradually he came to realize that his king was planning on a military expedition to Italy, to try to subdue the Romans.
So he confronted Pyrrhus and asked him if indeed he wished to conquer Italy and bring the Romans under his empire. When the king told him this was true, Cineas then asked him, “Sire, what shall we then do after we conquer Italy?” Pyrrhus answered that of course he would seek to acquire Sicily. “And after this, what then?”, Cineas asked.
“Well, of course then Carthage and Libya would beckon,” he responded. “They would be ripe for the taking.” Cineas then asked him if he intended to attack the Greek city states as well. Pyrrhus answered in the affirmative. But he did not realize where these questions were leading.
“And after all these countries are within our power,” Cineas said, “what shall we do then?”
Pyrrhus smiled and said, “Why, then we shall relax and drink, and amuse ourselves to our hearts’ content.” And then Cineas asked him this: “Sire, what prevents us from relaxing and enjoying ourselves now? We have the ability to do it at the present moment. Is it not possible to avoid all this suffering and war which we will inflict on others and ourselves, and seek this goal now?”
Pyrrhus was unsettled by this conversation, but he did not change his plans. He was later killed in battle during one of his campaigns in 272 B.C. His inability to be satisfied with anything, his lust to gain more and more, had been his undoing. This is a story as old as history.
Greed has a corrosive power. It seeps into the consciousness and hijacks it, preventing reason and judgment from performing their proper functions. As one of the old brokers said in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, “That’s the thing about money, Bud…it makes you do things you don’t want to do.”
Appetite and reason are the two components of the soul. If reason does not keep a firm, guiding hand on appetite, then greed begins to take hold of the soul. So one must be subordinate to the other. What distinguishes man from the beasts of Nature is that he has the capacity to use reason to keep his appetites in check. Animals are for the most part unable to think rationally about consequences. They are concerned only with the present moment, and cannot comprehend the laws of cause and effect.
Man, on the other hand, is constructed from nobler stuff. He is always probing for the causes behind things, and investigating one problem or another. He is fascinated by life, and by the strange and unfamiliar that he may see around him. Not all men are like this, of course. In fact, there are many who behave more like animals than men. But we should strive to emulate the good and the best, rather than the worst.
The humanist Paolo Giovio (1483-1552) stated the same principle in his treatise Notable Men and Women of Our Time:
Nearly all the philosophers admit that our souls are free and that they moderate all the appetites of the body. It often happens that, deceived by the pleasurable stimulation of the senses, it does not know how to retain control. Impaired and corrupted by bad acts, and forgetting their excellent freedom, our souls surrender to the slavery of their worst enemies, so that they inhabit bodies that are more animalistic than human.
Examples of this type of person abound today, and we can see them nearly everywhere. We know that just recently, for example, the president of the University of Missouri resigned his position for no good reason, under pressure from some empty-headed students. He surrendered his dignity and his position (worth about $500,000 per year) because he was a man of no moral conviction.
At the moment of conflict, where a man is put to the test, he proved to be a man of straw. His greed had caused him to accept a position of leadership, but he lacked the internal fortitude to truly believe in his position. At the critical moment, when he needed to stand and fight, he collapsed, and betrayed everyone under him. This lack of moral courage is one of the defining features of modern American life.
Those who have been tasked with a sacred duty of passing on Western culture, of safeguarding our institutions, of keeping discipline, of fighting against evil influences in society, and of protecting us from the predations of the mob or the powerful elites, have done nothing. They seek all the benefits of their positions, but shirk all the responsibilities of their positions.
He was elevated by greed, and propped up by greed; he enjoyed the benefits and perks of being the top dog, but was unwilling to accept any of the responsibilities of his leadership position. And one of these responsibilities is to resist the shouting and clamor of the ignorant mob. This he was incapable of doing. Too many such spineless men occupy positions of power in our society. Their cowardice and greed put us all at risk.
What should be our guide, then? We should use this general rule as a guide: to control greed, we should keep our appetite for pleasure rationally related to health and strength. What do I mean by this? I mean that pleasure should serve health and strength, and should not be pursued for its own sake. Beyond a certain point—and every man should train himself to be aware of this point—health and strength are not helped, but are hurt.
Keeping this general principle in mind will permit our souls to perform their proper function as the controller and regulator of the appetites.
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